High expectations: <I>Mystic River</I> no Boston cream puff

The real Mystic River flows through Boston, between Charlestown and Chelsea. The metaphorical Mystic River flows between childhood and adulthood. Mystic River is a story of what can happen when that water gets muddied.

As in Sleepers, to which this film has some superficial similarities, the sexual abuse of male juveniles is the key factor that has repercussions decades later, though not in such direct fashion in this case.

In the opening scene three 11-year-old boys are playing when they're interrupted by two supposed cops. They take one of the boys, Dave, into their car, and he's not seen again until four days later when he manages to escape from them, emotionally scarred for life. The other two will never stop wondering what would have happened if they had been the one kidnapped.

It's 25 years later. The guys have gone their separate ways but are still in the area. One Saturday night Jimmy's (Sean Penn) 19-year-old daughter Katie (Emmy Rossum) goes out with friends and doesn't come home. Dave (Tim Robbins) sees her dancing in a bar that night. When he returns home hours later he's bleeding. His wife, Celeste (Marcia Gay Harden), patches him up.

The next morning Katie's car is found, and later her body. The state police have jurisdiction, and the investigation is headed by Sean (Kevin Bacon), the third member of the original trio, and his partner, Whitey (Laurence Fishburne).

The first suspect is Brendan Harris (Thomas Guiry), who had been dating Katie secretly because Jimmy hates him. Meanwhile, Dave makes up several stories to explain his wounded hand, and Celeste becomes increasingly suspicious of him.

In addition to the police investigation, Jimmy is conducting his own with the help of a couple of neighborhood thugs. "I'm gonna find him before the police do," Jimmy vows. "I'm gonna find him, and I'm gonna kill him."

The story, adapted by Brian Helgeland from a novel by Dennis Lehane, is not airtight but goes off in some interesting directions about macho codes and such. Clint Eastwood's direction is superb, except for the way he indulges Penn's penchant for overacting. The role of a grieving father certainly allows for histrionics, but Penn counters the traditional "Less is more" dictum with "More is not enough."

If the Academy could honor Al "Hoo-ah!" Pacino for Scent of a Woman, they may finally give Penn his long-deserved award, but Robbins' quietly enigmatic Dave is more to my taste.

Harden does an effective 180 from her role in Casa de los Babys, and Laura Linney is OK as Jimmy's wife. Eli Wallach, whose recent career has consisted mostly of appearing in tributes to Eastwood, has an unbilled cameo as a figure from the past.

While the Catholic church isn't directly involved with the pedophilia in Mystic River, Eastwood gives us a close-up of a ring with a cross on it on the finger of one of young Dave's kidnappers, who also wears a cross around his neck.

You may not believe it, reading me in this esteemed publication, but I'm not on the critical "A-list." If I had been, I might have seen Mystic River before reports from my more equal equals raised my expectations to unfulfillable levels. It's a solid mystery drama that's worth seeing, but it's not without flaws.